In Defense of Intinction: A Response to Joe Thorn

Intinction

I highly respect Joe Thorn as a preacher, and his podcast “Doctrine & Devotion” is one of the better Christian podcasts out there despite the some of the less than pointless banter between he and his brother in arms, Jimmy Fowler. However, I’m writing this article because Thorn published an article on the Doctrine & Devotion blog entitled, “Sip It, Don’t Dip It.

In his article, Thorn makes an attempt to dissuade Christians from practicing the Lord’s Supper via intinction.  For those of you who don’t know, intinction is the practice whereby you take the bread, dip it into the wine, and eat it. Apparently, this is an offensive practice within the ranks of the Reformed community, and until I read Thorn’s article and did the research, I didn’t realize that this was such a big deal.

Goals

First of all, I’m not writing this response to say that intinction is the only valid way to partake of the sacrament. That would be just as preposterous as saying that the only valid way to partake of the eucharist is by eating the bread first, and then drinking the wine. I’m simply defending the practice as being equally valid with the other ways in which the body of Christ has been known to partake throughout the ages.

Secondly, I’m going to kindly overlook the irony of a Baptist telling me that I shouldn’t ‘immerse’ the bread into the wine.

What I hope to accomplish is to start a conversation that might allow Joe Thorn and those who agree with him to reconsider their position of intinction as invalid. I could care less whether they personally practice intinction or not, but I feel holding to such a rigid position marginalizes brothers and sisters in Christ who hold to such a practice.

A Review of the Article in Question

Thorn starts out his article by saying that “rightly administering the Lord’s Supper is one of the marks of a true church.” Right out of the gate, Thorn is by implication stating that churches that practice intinction are not true churches because clearly he does not believe that this is a way to “rightly administer” the Supper.

As you continue reading the article you’ll find that Thorn has given us three reasons that he believes we should “sip it, don’t dip it” and I’ll examine all three of these reasons.

  1. The Command to Eat and Drink
    • Thorn brings up an interesting point that there seems to be a separation in distributing and partaking of elements, but we have to ask ourselves if our Lord’s thought process behind this was because He foresaw the alleged evils of intinction down through the annals of time, and He wanted to make sure to prevent such a catastrophe by keeping the elements of the meal separate, or are the authors simply giving unfolding the events as they happened?We have to be careful not to read into the text what is not there, and what Thorn seems to be reading into the Gospel accounts is a command to separate the elements. In his paper on Scripture’s Normativity, Grant Gaines shares with us a couple of thoughts from N.T. Wright concerning the use of Scripture which I find relevant.

      “As N. T. Wright reminds us, the Bible “is not a rule book; it is a narrative.” [1] To attempt merely to gather a collection of all the transcultural principles from Scripture is to “belittle the Bible” because it implies “that God has, after all, given us the wrong sort of book and [that] it is our job to turn it into the right sort of book by engaging in these hermeneutical moves.” [2]

  2. The Significance of the Blood Separated from the Body
    • Notice what Thorn says here:

      “Just as the Paschal lamb was sacrificed, its blood being poured out in death, so Jesus presents the Lord’s Supper as a separation of blood and body. This separation itself signifies death and points explicitly to the death of our Savior.”

      This is going to probably sound more flippant than how I intend for it to be, but if the Lord’s Supper is simply a representation (as most Baptists would assert), then why does it matter? I mean if we’re saying that when Christ said, “This is my body” he actually meant “This is a representation of my body” then why would it bother Thorn for someone to practice intinction?

      If we continue reading this section, we see Thorn again reading something into the text of Scripture that isn’t there. He argues that the Apostle Paul talks about the elements being separate and distinct in 1 Corinthians 10. If that’s the case, then let’s look at it. I’ll even play ball and look at it in the ESV.

      “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” – 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, ESV

      Paul certainly mentions the elements separately, but is this an explicit command for them to be taken separately? I’m not so sure. I think to say that this is a command for the elements to be taken separately is awfully akin to the Appalachian Pentecostals who believe that Mark 16 is a command to take up serpents and drink poison. I don’t see a command here. I simply see a statement about participating in Christ by partaking of the Supper.

      However, Joe Thorn is adamant that “each taken separately is a “participation” in Christ.” By implication, he seems to be saying that the elements taken separately is not a participation in Christ. So, if it’s not a participation in Christ, then what is it? Well, the Apostle Paul seems to tell us in the 21st verse of the same chapter.

      “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.” – 1 Corinthians 10:21, ESV

      So, if the Paul is addressing intinction here (which he’s not) then that would mean that those who participating such a practice are eating and drinking at the table of Satan. I’m confident that Thorn did not mean to imply such a thing about well-meaning brothers and sisters, but that’s what happens when you read something into the text of Scripture that isn’t there.

  3. The Regulative Principle Cautions Us
    • This third and final reason that Joe Thorn gives us assumes that the Regulative Principle even works to begin with.For those of you who don’t know what The Regulative Principle is, the Westminster Confession of Faith defines it in these terms,

      “But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.”

      This means that we are to worship God only in the ways in which He has prescribed and not “according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan.” Sounds good, right? The problem is that Jesus Christ Himself did not follow the Regulative principle, as David and Tim Bayly point out here:

      “Scripture tells us that Jesus went to the synagogue in Galilee on the Sabbath as was His habit, and there publicly read the Word of God, explaining Isaiah’s significance to the assembled people. In any Reformed church such action would be viewed as the the height of worship. Yet where in the Old Testament do we find express biblical warrant for synagogue worship? Where is routine public worship outside the realm of temple worship and public feast days positively commanded?”

      Seeing as how Jesus didn’t observe this Puritanical practice, I’m not so sure that it’s useful for us to observe it either. Therefore, it’s not a valid reason to keep the elements separate in the Supper.

Concluding Thoughts on the Article

Joe Thorn concludes the article by trying to say that we are commanded to (in his words to “eat” and then “drink.” I find it humorous how he puts the the word “then” in there. It’s kind of like how one might put “a representation of” in between Jesus’ words, “is” and “my” in His statement, “This is my body.”

The last paragraph concludes with Thorn telling that us that “thought this isn’t a practice over which one should break fellowship with a church, it is a practice that should be evaluated by the word of God and replaced with a separation of the elements.” So, basically he’s saying “don’t divide, just do it this way.” While I agree that it’s not issue to divide over (because my own home church doesn’t even practice intinction), I don’t think it’s an issue that needs to be addressed in such manner as to imply that those who practice intinction are not “rightly administering the supper.”

Why Does it Matter to Me?

If you read Rev. Lane B. Keister’s paper, then you’ll see that intinction was a practice that was probably introduced in the 3rd or 4th Century as a way for those who were physically ill to receive the Lord’s Supper without great danger of spilling the elements.

When I get the opportunity to partake of the Sacrament at a congregation that practices intinction then I am reminded that I am sick and in need of a Savior. I am reminded there is healing for me when I “participate” in Christ because He has said, “This is my body” and “this is my blood.” He is there. He may not be there in the that our Romanist friends say that He is there. I do not believe that the broken bread and the poured out wine is a sacrifice as they do, but I’m driven to believe that Christ is there in a very real sense.

But, when I partake of the Supper at a congregation that doesn’t practice intinction, the Supper is equally valid and equally special for me because I’m reminded just as elements are given to me separately so too was the suffering of our Lord given to Him separately. First, His body was beaten and tortured, then His blood was spilled, and just as the natural eating of bread gives life the body so does the death and resurrection of Christ bring life to the soul.

____________________

  1. N. T. Wright, “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?,” Vox Evangelica 21 (1991): 10.
  2. Ibid., 13. Elsewhere Wright states that “biblicistic proof-texting” is “inconsistent with the nature of the texts we have.” See N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God vol. 1 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 140. Wright contrasts the problematic approach of principlizing with what he considers to be a better way forward: “Rather than trying to filter out the actual arguments that Paul is mounting in order to ‘get at’ the doctrines that, it is assumed, he is ‘expounding,’ I have stressed that we must pay attention to those larger arguments and to the great story of God, the world, Israel, and Jesus, giving special attention to the ‘Israel’ dimension, within which the cross means for him what it means for him.” See N. T. Wright, “Reading Paul, Thinking Scripture,” in Scripture’s Doctrine and Theology’s Bible: How the New Testament Shapes Christian Dogmatics, eds. Markus Bockmuehl and Alan J. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 70.
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I Still Need the Sacraments

Sacraments

Growing up, I dreaded the first Sunday of each quarter. Every time during the evening service we would have Lord’s Supper after the sermon. It was clockwork, without fail. I dreaded these services because they seemed to always have the same emphasis: if there is any sin in your life, you need to repent or not take the cracker and juice this time. Like a self barring of the table. Every instance I took communion, but if I’m honest; every time I just seemed to be reminded that I’m a sinner. It was a parade of guilt and pleading.

Flash forward to today. I am not looking forward to work this week  I like my job, but the weekend has rushed by far too fast. It’s been like that for years. Everything moves faster as I’m starting to get older. There are demands for me to always have my best foot forward. Everything must be regulated and perfect. You must always think that I’m strong and never know I’m a sinner. But every Sunday, for just a brief few minutes I can stop and openly, publicly confess that I’m not strong. That at the end of the day I am weak. When it comes down to it I am sloppy and sinful. Through the Sacraments, you and I are invited to publicly proclaim that we do not have it all together. These visible signs and seals of the Gospel aren’t dead rituals that we perform. They are not there for those who think they are worthy. Christ does not call His people to clean themselves up before they come to the font or the table. But rather, He invites us, saying “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink”. We still need the sacraments.

Because We Are Sinners…and Saints

Week after week I find myself still sinning. I still speak too harshly to my wife. I still hate that guy who cut me off in traffic. I still lie about if I’m angry. I still get angry about things that don’t matter. I still fight my wandering eye, and I still do the right thing with a bad attitude. Sanctification is progressive and slow. Laying at bed from time to time, I am faced again with the fact that I just can’t get right. I am reminded of past failures of arrogance and pride. But it is vitally important to remember the sacraments. We have every grace to look back to our baptism in faith and see once more that God has promised us: I will be your God. I will wash you. I will make you clean. “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified.” (1 Cor 6:11). God promises us through baptism that we are, by faith, truly forgiven.

That promise is extended again to us in the Lord’s Supper. In this sacrament he nourishes with His body and His blood. “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life…Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6) If we are Christ’s, He calls us to come to the table and feast. Not because we are perfect or have it all together, but because we don’t. Not because we are worthy, but because He is gracious. Not because we are in some way righteous, but because He has given us His righteousness.

By coming to Communion we are reminded that by faith in Christ we are already clean, already promised to make it all the way. When Christ says that through his flesh and blood we “abide” he seems to indicate that this sacrament is beneficial for our sanctification. By that, I mean that Communion is a God ordained means whereby He shows us repeatedly His Gospel promises. Through Baptism and Communion, we are pointed to Christ through them, and thus, looking to Him by faith, are brought into a more perfect relationship with Him. We still need the sacraments because God has given them for us to abide in Him.

 

So fear not, dear Christian, that you do not belong at the font or table. Run to them. Bring your children to them, let them see what’s going on. Do not let your failures in the Christian walk cause you to hesitate or doubt your ability to come. This water is for you and your children. This table is for you to sustain you by faith. Come to the Sacraments, not as a dead ritual that just signals that the service is coming to a close. But come to it as a God given necessity for the Christian life.

The Exilic Identity of Believers (Part 1)

It is no secret that Christians feel lost in this sinful world. Often times we go through our day and we feel out of place. Sin is rampant, holiness is scarce. We are seen as “odd” because we wont partake in the folly of the world.

“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,  according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you.”- 1 Peter 1:1-2 ESV

But in 1 Peter, Peter is writing to Jews who are dispersed throughout the Roman Empire; and are likely under the rule of Nero. They live in a world that is very similar to ours. They are outcasts, misfits, they know that they don’t belong to this world anymore. They live in a time of severe persecution. And though our persecution likely isn’t anywhere near the level of theirs, the principles we draw from Peter’s two letters are nonetheless as valuable to us as they were to them.

Peter opens his letter by giving his readers an identity of hope: those who are elect exiles. That may not sound like an identity you would like to have, because who really wants to be an exile? But its really a term of endearment rather than a negative one. Yes they are exiles, but they are far more than that! They are elect exiles! Without a doubt this wording brought about the memories of the stories that they had heard many times from family members of how their ancestors lived in exile in Egypt and the freedom they finally experienced.

In verse 2 Peter gives his readers four reasons why they must endure the persecution and continue to live as exiles. First, their exile is “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father”. Second it is “for the sanctification of the Spirit”. Third, it is “for obedience to Jesus”. Lastly, it is “for sprinkling with blood”. Your exilic state has a purpose, namely to sanctify you.

If you take anything from 1 Peter 1:1-2  my desire is that you find your identity. You are an elect exile. Purposefully chosen and placed in your specific context to spread the Gospel. Take hope in Christ, who was pierced and died so that you could glorify Him in the world that hates Him.

The Marrow of the Matter: The Sanctification Debate Returns

Marrow Matter

It has taken me almost 27 years, and sanctification is still a tough subject to get around. It is, in my opinion, the doctrine where the rubber meets the road. The nature of good works and their relationship to sanctification is not a new debate. The Reformed tradition has come to this dispatch box for centuries, the Marrow Controversy has not died yet. Last week, John Piper lit the powder keg again saying,  These works of faith, and this obedience of faith, these fruits of the Spirit that come by faith, are necessary for our final salvation. No holiness, no heaven”. Of course, the Reformed community came back with either push back for affirmation.

But my effort in this is not to respond to either Dr. Piper or the responses to him. This of course may seem like I am dodging the war; but I want to respond to two things I myself have seen. I want to clarify the position of the “Free Grace” boys and give some push back to my New Law brothers. I think we have a serious discussion creeping up on us, and it has the potential to teach something that is contrary to the Scriptures.

What is sanctification? According to our Confession,

Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace,[97] whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God,[98] and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.[99] (WSC #35)

Right from the onset we must dispel some things about Sanctification. First, sanctification is a work of God’s grace. Man cannot please God apart from the Spirit’s work within him. He cannot merit for Himself any righteousness before God. The Confession leaves us no room to say that sanctification is our work. It is something that is wrought in us by the Holy Spirit. The prophet Ezekiel tells us this when he says:

And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (ESV)

Second, sanctification is not passive. We are truly active in sanctification. We are equipped, by God’s free grace, to truly resist sin and to live according to God’s commands. Sin has no power over the Christian insofar that he cannot resist it. The believer is certainly given a new spirit that wills and wants that which is pleasing to God. We cannot deny this from the Confession either. By God’s grace we actively obey Him, and we break off the chains of sin.

I want to be very clear in these statements. Doubtless some will throw around the dread term antinomian for what I will say. However, I am not saying that the Christian should live in a state of unrepentance and passivity. Yes of course we should put to death the deeds of the flesh and chase after righteousness. We would not disagree on this.

However, my concern arises when we begin to treat good works as either the basis for our sanctification or the instrument by which the Spirit sanctifies us. Or that the Christian has a somewhat two fold justification: one that is given to us sola gratia, sola fide and one that is taken hold of per opera bona. This is utterly foreign to the Reformed tradition. Paul is clear that those who are justified and surely glorified.  (Romans 8:31) If these good works are Spirit wrought, how then can one obtain the promise of eternal life but never take it in actuality? However our Confession teaches that through good works believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the Gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God. But none of this speaks of good works being the instrument nor is it the means by which we take possession of eternal life.

Berkhof writes that good works, “do not have the inherit value which naturally carries with it a just claim to a reward.” This is because they are Spirit-wrought, not Christian-wrought. Whatever claim we have to them, we must be very quick to remind ourselves that they God working through us.

Good works then cannot be the instrument of sanctification. It is not that we are equipped to work and are thus sanctified. To argue this is to put the cart before the horse. It makes our sanctification (and thus our final salvation) dependent on our good works meriting God’s sanctifying work.

My fear is that there is a conflation in these discussions between justification and sanctification. Our New Law brothers at best are trying to ward off against anti-nomianism. I can appreciate that. However, they do a great disservice when they argue that our salvation is through good works and not unto good works. It is a dangerous place that this leads us to.

It leads us to a place that I saw one Southern Baptist seminarian go this weekend. Let’s call him Tim. Tim, in one of his many attempts to ignite the passions of his social media echo chamber, began to put a former Presbyterian minister on blast for an antinomian view. This pastor has not been on the stage for some time. But Tim likes to be heard and so attacked a formally ordained minister. However in doing so he makes the statement that it is “not enough” that we rest in our justification. My question is then: In whom then should I rest for my salvation? Jay? Jay is a terrible person to rest in. Jay is a sinner who daily has to repent. Do I have all that I need in Christ to be fully redeemed? Is it really finished? Or must I add to Christ’s work with my own sanctifying efforts as Rome tells me?

This is how serious the discussion is, it is the crux of the Reformation. Scripture clearly teaches that we are saved not by our works but by Christ. Our works are evidences of the faith and grace that has been freely given to us. But they are not the instrument of some final salvation. So to Tim, or anyone else who asks, “What must we do to be doing the works of God?” I look to Christ who says, “Believe” and “come to me and take my yoke, for it is easy and my burden is light.”

The Proper Distinction Between Law & Gospel by C.F.W. Walther

Law&Gospel

Thesis I.
The doctrinal contents of the entire Holy Scriptures, both of the Old and the New Testament, are made up of two doctrines differing fundamentally from each other, viz., the Law and the Gospel.

Thesis II.
Only he is an orthodox teacher who not only presents all articles of faith in accordance with Scripture, but also rightly distinguishes from each other the Law and the Gospel.

Thesis III.
Rightly distinguishing the Law and the Gospel is the most difficult and the highest art of Christians in general and of theologians in particular. It is taught only by the Holy Spirit in the school of experience.

Thesis IV.
The true knowledge of the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is not only a glorious light, affording the correct understanding of the entire Holy Scriptures, but without this knowledge Scripture is and remains a sealed book.

Thesis V.
The first manner of confounding Law and Gospel is the one most easily recognized — and the grossest. It is adopted, for instance, by Papists, Socinians, and Rationalists, and consists in this, that Christ is represented as a new Moses, or Lawgiver, and the Gospel turned into a doctrine of meritorious works, while at the same time those who teach that the Gospel is the message of the free grace of God in Christ are condemned and anathematized, as is done by the papists.

Thesis VI.
In the second place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Law is not preached in its full sternness and the Gospel not in its full sweetness, when, on the contrary, Gospel elements are mingled with the Law and Law elements with the Gospel.

Thesis VII.
In the third place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Gospel is preached first and then the Law; sanctification first and then justification; faith first and then repentance; good works first and then grace.

Thesis VIII.
In the fourth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Law is preached to those who are already in terror on account of their sins, or the Gospel to those who live securely in their sins.

Thesis IX.
In the fifth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when sinners who have been struck down and terrified by the Law are directed, not to the Word and the Sacraments, but to their own prayers and wrestlings with God in order that they may win their way into a state of grace; in other words, when thy are told to keep on praying and struggling until they feel that God has received them into grace.

Thesis X.
In the sixth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher describes faith in a manner as if the mere inert acceptance of truths, even while a person is living in mortal sins, renders that person righteous in the sight of God and saves him; or as if faith makes a person righteous and saves him for the reason that it produces in him love and reformation of his mode of living.

Thesis XI.
In the seventh place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when there is a disposition to offer the comfort of the Gospel only to those who have been made contrite by the Law, not from fear of the wrath and punishment of God, but from love of God.

Thesis XII.
In the eighth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher represents contrition alongside of faith as a cause of the forgiveness of sin.

Thesis XIII.
In the ninth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when one makes an appeal to believe in a manner as if a person could make himself believe or at least help towards that end, instead of preaching faith into a person’s heart by laying the Gospel promises before him.

Thesis XIV.
In the tenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when faith is required as a condition of justification and salvation, as if a person were righteous in the sight of God and saved, not only by faith, but also on account of his faith, for the sake of his faith, and in view of his faith.

Thesis XV.
In the eleventh place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Gospel is turned into a preaching of repentance.

Thesis XVI.
In twelfth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher tries to make people believe that they are truly converted as soon as they have become rid of certain vices and engage in certain works of piety and virtuous practices.

Thesis XVII.
In the thirteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when a description is given of faith, both as regards its strength and the consciousness and productiveness of it, that does not fit all believers at all times.

Thesis XVIII.
In the fourteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the universal corruption of mankind is described in such a manner as to create the impression that even true believers are still under the spell of ruling sins and are sinning purposely.

Thesis XIX.
In the fifteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher speaks of certain sins as if there were not of a damnable, but of a venial nature.

Thesis XX.
In the sixteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when a person’s salvation is made to depend on his association with the visible orthodox Church and when salvation is denied to every person who errs in any article of faith.

Thesis XXI.
In the seventeenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when men are taught that the Sacraments produce salutary effects ex opere operato, that is, by the mere outward performance of a sacramental act.

Thesis XXII.
In the eighteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when a false distinction is made between a person’s being awakened and his being converted; moreover, when a person’s inability to believe is mistaken for his not being permitted to believe.

Thesis XXIII.
In the nineteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when an attempt is made by means of the demands or the threats or the promises of the Law to induce the unregenerate to put away their sins and engage in good works and thus become godly; on the other hand, when an endeavor is made, by means of the commands of the Law rather than by the admonitions of the Gospel, to urge the regenerate to do good.

Thesis XXIV.
In the twentieth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the unforgiven sin against the Holy Ghost is described in a manner as if it could not be forgiven because of its magnitude.

Thesis XXV.
In the twenty-first place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the person teaching it does not allow the Gospel to have a general predominance in his teaching.

You may read each of C.F.W. Walther’s lectures on these theses at this link.

The Gospel for Cynics, Doubters, and Skeptics

GospelForCynics

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” – John 1:43-51, NRSV

I’m going to have the privilege of teaching over this passage in Bible Study at my church in a couple of weeks and the more I read this passage, the more I can’t help but think about the different personalities that come into play here.

Philip

In the passage, Philip is mentioned first. Jesus said, “Follow me” and that’s exactly what Philip did. Philip followed him without question or hesitation. Now, what does Philip do? He finds Nathanael, and he tells him that they’ve found the Messiah. We’ll touch on Nathanael’s response in a bit, but notice Philip. He seems enthusiastic about telling people about the Messiah. This same enthusiasm is a common personality trait of his. It’s why he’s able to be an effective witness to the Gospel of Christ.

In Acts 8, he witnesses to and baptizes a eunuch and in Acts 21:8 he is given the title of ‘Evangelist.’   I think it’s fair to deduce from what little the New Testament has to say about Philip that he is someone who is optimistic, and he’s someone that we might refer to as a ‘go getter.’

Personally, I can’t relate.

However, pay attention to what Philip says when Nathanael tries to argue with him – “come and see.” I think modern Christendom can learn a thing or two simply pausing and reflecting on this passage. Philip doesn’t try to argue with Nathanael, he just says, “Come and see.” He’s saying, “Alright, find out for yourself.”

You see ads all the time that have money-back guarantees and they say, “If you’re not completely satisfied with the product then send it back and you’ll get your money back.” Now, we know that’s not entirely true. Before you’re able to get your money back, there’s a lot of bureaucratic red tape that you have to go through, but what Philip says to Nathanael is better than a money-back guarantee. He simply says, “Come and see.”

Honestly, I think that’s the most effective way to evangelize. You not see a boost in church attendance by evangelizing like that, but that’s because we’ve defined success by the numbers, but that’s another blog post for another time.

Nathanael

I can relate to Nathanael. Notice his response to Philip – “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Why would Nathanael say this? I would say that Nathanael is being realistic.

As we’ll see later, Nathanael is a student of Old Testament. There’s not anything mentioned about the Messiah coming from Nazareth. Nazareth was also a poor village and possibly known for its moral corruption. Usually poverty and crime go hand in hand so it wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to think of Nazareth as such a town.

Nathanael is having a hard time conceiving the notion that the Messiah that he believed was going to be coming to bring political revolution to the Jews was going to be coming from a place like Nazareth.

When He sees Jesus, Jesus says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Before Nathanael fully recognizes Jesus for who He is, he’s probably thinking, “Alright, this guys is trying to sell me something so he asks, “Where did you get to know me?”

He wants to be sure that Jesus is really the Chosen One of God, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to be sure. Notice what Jesus says – “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” This is where we learn about Nathanael being a student of the Scriptures.

Cultural context is important because things in Scripture aren’t always as they appear on the surface. When we read this without cultural we might, “Oh, Jesus had a vision of Nathanael chilling out under a fig tree.” It’s not that simple.

According to the NIV First Century Study Bible, ‘under the fig tree’ was a euphemism for studying the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus pointed out that Nathanael was a ‘true Israelite’ because he had been studying the Scriptures. We see this taken a step farther whenever Jesus mentions that they would see “angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” There’s only one other place in Scripture where that phrase is used and it’s in Genesis 28:10-15 where Jacob has a vision of a stairway going into Heaven and angels ascending and descending on the stairway.

In Genesis 28, after Jacob has the vision, God reminds him of the promise to bless his seed. Jesus was communicating to Nathanael the promise to bless his Jacob’s seed has been fulfilled in Himself. He is the stairway to Heaven between God and man.

Jesus

Finally, we come to the personality of Jesus. If I were going to fully talk about how Jesus is, it would take too long so I simply want to look at how He is portrayed in this passage.

First, Jesus is humble. Although His humility is not directly alluded to in the passage, I think it’s something that we can still deduce when we consider Jesus coming from a town like Nazareth. I already mentioned that the town itself was probably a ghetto filled with poverty and moral corruption.

It would’ve been enough for Jesus to put on human flesh and live on earth, but it wasn’t enough for Him. He knew the kind of life He was getting into. He chose to be born to Joseph and Mary. He knew they would live in Nazareth – that little podunk village that nothing good can come from. He chose that life. Jesus is of more value and worth than we could ever attribute to Him and yet, He chooses to live among the meek, the lowly, the humble, and the outcast so that those meek, lowly, humble, and outcast could see that He relates to them.

Second, Jesus is understanding. When Nathanael asks Him how He got to know him, Jesus doesn’t have to give Nathanael an answer. Jesus doesn’t him anything, and yet he understands Nathanael’s desire for an explanation.

Jesus seeks us out as we are, not as we’re going to be. He looks into our souls and He sees us – the real us, not the mask we put on for the others, but the real, broken, insecure us that has a an existential crisis at least three times a week at the most inconvenient times.

Jesus understands us, and that is why the writer of Hebrews says, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16, NRSV)

Reflections on the Valley of Vision: Sincerity, Part 1: Some Thoughts on Authenticity

reflections-of-sincerity

“You desire truth in the inward being;
Therefore teach me wisdom in my secret being.”
– Psalm 51:6, NRSV

(Full prayer may be read here)

In this post, I mostly want to share some introductory thoughts going into the prayer, and in the next post, I’ll give some personal thoughts and commentary over the prayer.

I don’t know about you, but I have doubts about my salvation. Sometimes the thought plagues my mind that I could be one of those to whom  Jesus says, “I never knew you. Get away from me, you who practice evil!” (Matthew 7:23, ISV)

When this happens, I often pray from the Valley of Vision because there are times when I know what I want to pray, but I can’t seem to find the words, and usually when I read the prayers I think, “This is exactly how I’m feeling and this is exactly what I want to say to God.” I had one of those moments this past Sunday as I was flipping through the Valley of Vision and came across the prayer for sincerity. It was so fitting because I believe that God’s people just aren’t authentic enough in their faith.

Not all Christians feel this way. Some people think, I suppose, that we should drink lemon juice for communion so we look holier. Bill Muehlenberg wrote, what I would describe as, an almost scathing article against the idea of “authentic” Christianity. He made statements like, “Forget this foolishness of avoiding hypocrisy by embracing and settling for carnality and second-rate Christianity….Forget this lousy talk about “authenticity” and start talking about biblical holiness.” Now, all that talk of ‘biblical holiness’ sounds nice to the red tie-wearing, conservative, church goer that arrives to worship 15 minutes early every Sunday, makes sure they always have the same spot in the sanctuary, but reality is that biblical holiness is not something we can accomplish in and of ourselves. Holiness is given to us in Christ. That’s the only way one can reconcile Ephesians 2:8 (“by grace you are saved and not of works”) and Hebrews 12:14 (“without holiness no man shall see the Lord) without believing that you can lose your salvation or that you have to finish the work of salvation.

We’re not perfect. We struggle. We fall. We sin. And we have a tendency to hide behind a mask and we may (intentionally or unintentionally) lead people to think that we’re better than what we are. Dr. Steve Brown said “Christians are masters at hidden agendas and masks” and I couldn’t agree more. We all have a mask that we like hiding behind because it’s comfortable so that’s when I read the prayer for Sincerity in the Valley of Vision, I feel convicted of my sin and yet at the same time I’m comforted because I access to the Father by His grace so I don’t have to wear a mask in front of Him. He knows how bad I am and He loves me anyway.

There’s no reason to have a mask on before the throne of grace. Jesus has seen all the ugly parts and He’s not going anywhere. In Hebrews 13, the writer reminds his audience in verse 5 that Jesus has promised that He will never leave us nor forsake us, and then in verse 8 the writer says boldly that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Life is unstable and the challenges that we face in life can cause us to become unstable, but Jesus is a friend that sticks closer than a brother (Proverbs 18:24). Jesus is stable foundation you can build your life on. Trust Him.

Resources:

The Valley of Vision

Agendas and Masks by Steve Brown

Hidden Agendas with Steve Brown

And if you thought the Muehlenberg article was bad, check out “Has ‘Authenticity’ Trumped Holiness?” by Brett McCracken on The Gospel Coalition.